Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 34: Do Your Genealogy at the Public Library, Part 1
Did you know there is a gem of a genealogical resource right in your own backyard? Well, at least in your own neighborhood—and also in just about every neighborhood where your ancestors lived. The public library is one of the most underestimated sources of genealogical information around! It’s free. It has better hours than most government-run agencies. There are staff with research skills, knowledge of their locale and knowledge about their collections. I have invited Patricia Van Skaik, Manager of the History and Genealogy Department of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to join us here on the podcast. In this episode she’s going to give us the inside scoop on the unique genealogical resources that are tucked away in public libraries just waiting to be discovered.
What’s at the library?
Each library has unique materials for its locale. Examples include:
Partnerships with local societies and clubs, and organizations (access to databases)
Unique library expertise
TIP: Check with the public libraries in each location where your ancestors lived TIP: Genealogy holdings vary, and often have to do with what local constituents want.
TIP: Get involved and make requests at your local library if you want more genealogy resources.
How to prepare for your visit
Determine your questions ahead of time and gather the appropriate ancestor information to take with you.
See if they have a genealogy area on the website. There are lots of things on the library website that are not in the catalogue (special exhibits, digitized images, and databases) Don’t just jump straight to the catalogue.
Search the online catalog and identify the books and resources you want
Look for the geographic area, not the person’s surname (town, county, geographical area)
Use the Advanced search – “you don’t have to be an advanced researcher to use the advanced search!”
Don’t use the word “genealogy” in your search. It’s pretty useless.
4 more tips from Lisa and Patricia
Email in advance – ask some questions ahead of time:
Is the website up to date?
Reconfirm hours of operation
What’s the best time to come for more service?
Is wi-fi available?
Do you need change for copy machines?
Are there any special collections you should know about?
Do they offer orientations?
Plan a group visit: Some libraries will make special accommodations for a group visit. Ask if they will provide a tour geared to genealogy. And they may have a meeting room where you can have lunch or meet. It’s a small investment in time and money to make sure that you’re going to get the most of the time you’re going to spend there.
Get their expertise! Librarians don’t just know the collection, but they also know research strategy, collection contents, all the questions that have come before, and local area resources.
Phrase your questions for success: Pose questions in terms of a query. For example: “I’m trying to find evidence of someone’s death during this time frame. What materials do you have that may help?” (Don’t just ask specifically for obituaries or government death records—they may not have one but they may have other resources you’re not thinking of.)
Tune in next week to Episode 35 to learn more about researching at the public library, like tips for advance searching those online card catalogs, thinking like a librarian, unique collections at librarians and the types of questions you can ask your public library staff.
Show Notes & Video: Finding your German ancestor’s village is key to finding the genealogical records you need to go further back in your family tree. In this session you’ll learn:
How and why it is important to know the “Heimat” because many records are kept on the local level.
How to de garble a village name that is handed down to you (a common problem!)
Records to search for village names.
Resources for finding those records.
My guest presenter is James Beidler. He’s an expert on German genealogy and was gracious enough to share his expertise in the Genealogy Gems booth at Rootstech a few years ago. Visit James Beidler’s website. Get the book: The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany. (Thank you for using our affiliate link which supports this free content.)
Researching your ancestors deep into Germany simply doesn’t happen unless you know the name of the village of origin. This presentation goes over the sources to tie your immigrant to a Heimat and then find the village and its records! HIghlighted in this article are the strategies and resources referred to in this video.
German Methodologies Review:
Your first job is to find every document of the immigrant ancestor or that mentions the immigrant ancestor:
Prepare for surname variants
“Redundancy” is a virtue (e.g., obit may well have something tombstone does not)
Even items such as letters and diaries might give clues!
Be prepared for village names to be corrupted
Familiarize yourself with German maps / gazetteers
Look for “patterns of association” with other individuals
Process any piece of information that might distinguish the immigrant (e.g., occupation, names of other family members, etc.)
Utilize “whole family” genealogy
If specific records don’t exist for your ancestor, try others in family
Look for published sources
1700s families: Burgert / Jones / Yoder / Hacker
1800s families: Burkett / Germans to America / Emigration indexes
Search International Genealogical Index
References to individual
References to clusters of the surname if it is not common
References to shipmates
References to “associated persons”
Look for other sources of immigrant information:
Heitmatstelle Pfalz immigrant card file
Hamburg embarkation lists
Use the “concentric circles” strategy
If a village is found for the above categories of people (surname, shipmates, associated persons) but your immigrant is not found …
… work out from that village in “concentric circles” to other surrounding villages
“Things found on the way to something else”
Machmer / Magemer / Mahomer example
Never turn away luck!
Types of records that might yield a place of origin:
Declarations of intent (“first papers”) Naturalization petitions (“final papers”)
Baptisms of children
Church burial records
Fraternal societies’ records
Letters from relatives
Postmarks on letters
Internet Websites Resources for German Research
The resources listed below can help us answer some of the most common questions we ask as genealogists. Some examples of the questions and Websites that will help:
1. What was the village of origin for my German-speaking immigrant ancestor?
New and updated genealogical collections for the Royal Irish Constabulary are just the tip of the iceberg this week. Scroll down for more cool finds for New South Wales, Scotland, U.S. marriages, and an update to the Freedmen’s Bureau collections at FamilySearch.
Each search result includes an image of the original document and a transcript. The nature of the information recorded will vary significantly depending on the subject and type of the original document. The following is a list of what types of records can be found in this collection:
Auxiliary division general registers: These are nominal rolls that recorded member’s service number, rank, dispersed date, and company name. The registers also include division journals that recorded dates of appointment, promotions, and medical details.
Clerical staff: record of service and salaries: These lists of clerical staff include birth date, age at appointment, rank, department and salary.
Constabulary Force Funds: These correspondence registers are of members who paid into the fund with notes on whether they had been pensioned, died or received any rewards from the fund.
Constabulary lists: These are lists of chief constables created during the first year of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Disbandment registers: These registers are of serving members who were with the force in 1922 when it disbanded after the creation of the Free Irish State. They also noted the number of years the constable served and their recommended pension.
General registers: Records of constables’ service history are contained in these general registers. The entries include the individual’s birth date, native county, religion, previous occupation, date of appointment, and promotions, as well as any rewards or punishments received and the date of pension or discharge.
Nominal returns, arranged by counties: Nominal returns are lists of all serving members of the Royal Irish Constabulary organised by county that recorded the individual’s number, rank, name, religion, date of appointment, marital status, and station location.
Officers’ registers: These registers are lists of Officers that include transfers and dates, favorable and unfavorable records, dates of promotions and details of previous military service.
Pensions and gratuities: Pension records reveal the constable’s rate of pay and the amount of pension calculated.
Recruits index: Lists of new recruits, their dates of appointment and arrival, and their company can be found in the recruits index.
Also at Findmypast, Ireland, Royal Irish Constabulary History & Directories has had a significant addition of over 43,000 records. You will be able to explore a variety of publications between the years of 1840 and 1921. These records will provide insight into the administration and daily operations of the police force.
Each record includes a PDF image of the original publication. The collection includes training manuals, codes of conduct, salary scales, circulars and staff lists that cover promotions, deployments, and rules & regulations.
Ireland – Valuation Books
At FamilySearch, the Ireland, Valuation Office Books, 1831-1856 are now available to search. These records are the original notebooks that were used when the property valuations were conducted between the years of 1831-1856. They are arranged by county, then alphabetically by parish or townland.
Land valuation records may contain the following information:
Land occupier’s name
Location, description, and monetary valuation of each land plot surveyed
New South Wales – Passenger Lists
The New South Wales Passenger Lists is a collection at Findmypast that contains over 8.5 million records. The collection includes records of both assisted and unassisted passengers. The assisted passenger lists cover 1828 to 1896 and the unassisted passenger lists span the years 1826 to 1900. Assisted passengers refers to those who received monetary assistance from another party or agency/government for their passage.
Each result will provide a transcript and image of the original record. The information included on the transcript will vary depending on whether your ancestor was an assisted or unassisted passenger, although most will include your ancestors name, passage type, birth year, nationality, departure port, arrival port and the dates of their travels.
Non-old parish registers are different from the Church of Scotland’s old parish records.
Though these are only transcripts and do not include a digital image of the original, you may find the following information on the records included in this collection:
With each result you will be provided with a transcript of the details found in the original source material. The detail in each transcript can vary depending on the event type and the amount of information that was recorded at the time of the event. Here are some of the facts you may find in the records:
Birth year, date, and place
Event type – birth, marriage, or death
Parish and county
United States – Freedmen’s Bureau Records
FamilySearch has updated their magnificent collection of United States Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of Freedmen, 1865-1872. Records found in this collection include census returns, registers, and lists of freedmen. They also include letters and endorsements, account books, applications for rations, and much more. Many of the records will hold valuable genealogical data.
For a complete list and coverage table of the full collection, click here.
Washington State historic newspapers added to their digital collection of newspapers this week. With nearly 50,000 digitized pages from historical newspapers based in Centralia, Eatonville, Tacoma, and Spokane newest titles include the Centralia Daily Hub (1914-16), The Eatonville Dispatch (1916-61) and Den Danske Kronike (1916-17), a Danish-English publication based in Spokane.
The Centralia and Eatonville papers were added this month and Den Danske Kronike was added last summer, along with the Tacoma Evening Telegraph (1886-87).
Have you used WPA records for genealogy? Their Historical Record Surveys and local and oral histories may help you in your family history research. Existing records and locations vary widely. Here are tips to help you in your search.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, also known as the Works Projects Administration) created new resources for U.S. genealogical research. It’s possible you’ve even consulted some of these without being aware of their WPA origins. After all, the projects and their formats varied. They didn’t always prominently credit the WPA and some were printed long afterward. We’re going to shine the spotlight on WPA-era local histories, oral histories and statewide Historical Record Surveys.
WPA Records for Genealogy: Local Histories
In Annie Barrows’ novel The Truth According to Us, Layla Beck heads to the small fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia to write a local history as a WPA assignment. Drama ensues, both in Layla’s personal life and as she tries to learn local stories, which everyone reports a little differently. (We featured this book in the Genealogy Gems Book Club.)
Actually, local histories were written as WPA projects. Their scope, topics, and formats varied, depending on the unique background and resources of each region and how active WPA workers were in each state and county. For example, WPA historical materials in Morrison County, Minnesota include “histories on townships, cities, churches, schools, businesses, the military, and miscellaneous county history topics,” which have since been collected and reprinted by the county historical society. Many historical projects included photographs, such as this one for the city of New Orleans.
WPA Records for Genealogy: Oral Histories
WPA workers also captured oral histories of individuals, too. Many were collected in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, now online at the Library of Congress. According to the collection description, “The documents chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, factory work, and the immigrant experience. The documents often describe the informant’s physical appearance, family, education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores.”
Other important WPA oral histories are narratives of former slaves and their families. You can browse an enormous collection of these online at the Library of Congress. These aren’t the ideal eyewitness accounts we wish for, as they were gathered so long after the end of slavery, from many who were young children at the time. Also, many researchers believe interviewees may not have spoken candidly, especially to white interviewers who may have known them personally.
It’s a long shot to find an ancestor mentioned by name in WPA oral histories. In some instances, pseudonyms were even used for names and places. But, you can still learn a lot from others’ descriptions of daily life and unusual events your ancestors may have experienced.
From one of the slave narratives mentioned in this article.
Historical Record Surveys
The Historical Record Surveys created by the WPA are among the most genealogically-valuable of their projects. “Under the auspices of the WPA, workers went to archives, historical societies, public and university libraries, and compiled inventories of manuscript collections,” writes Bryan Mulcahy in an online report. “They went to courthouses, town halls, offices in large cities, and vital statistics offices and inventoried records. Besides compiling indexes, they also transcribed some of the records they found.”
Today, many of their efforts still exist. They include indexes to cemeteries, newspapers, and naturalization records, as well as inventories of courthouse records, church records, and other manuscript collections in various archives or libraries. Of course, some records may have been moved or destroyed since inventories were created, but knowing what records existed around 1940 and what they were called may help you locate surviving collections. Some indexes, such as those of cemetery tombstone inscriptions, may actually be more valuable since they captured information from tombstones that may no longer exist or be legible.
A blank WPA Historical Records Survey church records inventory form. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida. Click this image to find it online at Florida Memory.
One great example is the Historical Records Survey for the state of Oregon, described as “the most comprehensive documentary project of Oregon history and related records of its time.” It includes historical essays, document transcriptions, interviews, research notes, photographs, pamphlets and more. According to its collection description, “The territorial and pioneer periods of the mid-to-late nineteenth century receive the greatest attention, with an emphasis on the growth of state government and infrastructure, business and agriculture, transportation, education, biography, and relations between social groups. Native Americans figure prominently in this collection.”
Finding WPA Records for Genealogy Online
Some WPA projects were carried out on a federal level and others by state agencies. They were never centrally published or collected. Today, surviving original files and published volumes are scattered across the country. Some can be found in the National Archives, many in state libraries or societies, and many more available at local repositories.
A Google search such as historical records surveys and the name of the state and/or county is a great way to start your search for WPA records for genealogy research. Some results will lead right to the kinds of resources you want, such as this guide to WPA records in archives in the Pacific Northwest. Others, such as this one for the Iowa Historical Records Survey published in The American Archivist, are mostly a history of the effort. However, they do contain several useful bibliographic citations to records that were created. Add the name of the county to your search and you may find more targeted results, such as this library catalog entry for the inventory of the Jasper County archives. Click here to learn more about Google searches for genealogy records you want to find.
Remember, though, that many WPA publications and collections aren’t identified as such. Don’t fixate on needing to find WPA listed in the title. Just concentrate your efforts on finding the local and oral histories, photos, historical record indexes and inventories, and other resources that may be out there. When you find one created during the Great Depression, you’ll know it may have been done by the WPA.